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Rear Ends and Faces: La Vie d’Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2

La vie d'Adèle (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)


Écriture de femme

In most critical responses to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning La Vie d’Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2, the movie’s literary context, specifically the connection to the almost synonymous unfinished novel La Vie de Marianne by 18th century wit, Académicien and enemy of Voltaire, Pierre de Marivaux, has been almost completely ignored. This is especially odd given that in much of contemporary French art cinema, even more than in their New Wave forebears, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade still holds precedence over pop culture: Melville, James and D.H. Lawrence closely followed by Carax, Denis, Benoît Jacquot and Pascale Ferran, Chardonne by Assayas, Barbey d’Aureyville by Breillat, Marivaux by Kechiche and Jacquot. At best, critics have ridiculed the subtitle in the context of the controversy surrounding the director’s portrayal of female/lesbian sexuality. Here’s Amy Taubin in her Cannes report: ’After about 90 minutes of foreplay, we get to the pièce de résistance, a prolonged love scene (estimates of its length ranged anywhere from seven minutes to 20) involving much kissing, tonguing, fingering, scissoring, rapt eyes, hungry lips, and of course, multiple orgasms. (I believe this is the climax of Chapter 1.).’ The connection to Marivaux is further obscured by the movie’s English title, Blue is the Warmest Color, taken directly from Adèle’s other source material, Julie Maroh’s Manga-esque graphic novel, Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, whose drawing style is referenced in the art works of the movie’s Emma. Actually, Adèle follows Maroh quite closely: set in the 1990s in the North of France, Maroh’s story revolves around the sexual awakening of 15-year old Clementine who, after a spat with school hunk Thomas, falls head over heels in love with a mysterious blue-haired girl, Emma. Hiding her sexuality from her conservative parents, Clementine embarks on an amour fou during which she will mature, find herself and accept her sexuality. In their adaptation, Kechiche and writing partner Ghalia Lacroix have telescoped the four-year period in which the story evolves, mirroring the time it took Maroh to finish the graphic novel she started when she was only nineteen, into a less specific time frame. They also got rid of Maroh’s frame story in which Emma reads Clementine’s diary narrating the events in the story (allusions to the diary-form remain, as when Adèle replies to Emma’s suggestion that she become a writer by saying that she only writes for herself). How then, did Clementine, who first changed into Adèle, flagging the close identification between lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos and the character, become associated with Marianne?

At the level of story, the sentimental education in Le Bleu est une couleur chaude has very little to do with that in La Vie de Marianne, other than that both stories start around the time their heroine is fifteen. Marianne is an epistolary novel published in 11 installments between 1731 and 1742, the story of an orphan whose noble birth is ‘supported by uncertain evidence’, having been adopted by the sister of a priest after her parents had been killed by highwaymen; making her way in the world, she is protected by Monsieur Valville with who she falls in love, and is adopted by the kind Madame de Miran who turns out to be Valville’s mother, making their union somewhat problematic, a situation aggravated by the fact that Valville has in the meantime fallen in love with someone else; in the end, Marianne enters into a convent to avoid the vulgar fate of ending up a kept woman. Although primarily a novel of manners, the story of Marianne also benefits from some of (gothic) melodrama’s neatest tricks: blood-curdling encounters with ruthless highwaymen, twists of fate and sudden reversals. What is left of this in the movie is very little: you could argue that the rather rudimentary depiction of class struggle – Adèle’s parents are poor and uncultured, Emma’s parents are upper middle-class and sophisticated, Adèle is a kindergarten teacher who doesn’t like her professors explaining the novels she likes, Emma is an art-school grad and aspiring artist who is part of a bohemian group that is part friends part critical community – is a remnant of Marivaux’s social satire. More importantly, in terms of plot, like Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, La Vie de Marianne is told retrospectively in the first person by a now securely-settled and wisened heroine. The marivaudage in this case is that the author has managed not only to adopt the voice of a female narrator, but a female writing style, giving expression to what Nancy K. Miller has described as ‘a collective obsessing about an idea called woman’ during the ‘feminocentric’ eighteenth century. It is this aspect of Marivaux, the idea of a male author mimicking the perspective of a character who is ‘furieusement femme’ (as Adèle’s lycée lit prof explains), an idea followed by later writers like Richardson and Rousseau, that Kechiche has adapted in his version of Maroh’s lesbian coming-of-age story.

Small wonder, then, that the latter took offence at the director’s treatment of her material, especially at the ‘male gaze’ that in her view both mystifies and objectifies, renders the sex scenes cold, chirurgical, pornographic (you can find her criticism here). Kechiche addresses the problem of a male (an Arabic male no less, although race never becomes an issue, not in the film, multicultural at heart, and not in the criticism) gaze explicitly in the film, specifically in the scene in which bisexual gallery owner/intellectual Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol) reflects on the mystical qualities of the female orgasm. But to most critics that scene’s either too little too late or part of the problem. In a remarkable instance of synchronicity, Amy Taubin and Manohla Dargis are ‘pricked,’ as Barthes would say, by the same telling detail in Adèle’s opening scenes:


The seductively lit but dim-witted saga was not a minute underway when an oddly positioned camera angle set off a warning light in my feminist brain, even as I was trying to not remind myself that Kechiche was also the director of that voyeuristic 2010 wallow in female abjection, Black Venus. Why, I wondered, in a shot that introduces the central character as she walks to school, is the focal point her ass? True, it is a lovely ass, even in a nondescript skirt, and we soon see more of it, and still more again. In a sequence in which Adèle is sleeping naked, the camera hovers over her upended rump, lovingly examining its gravity-defying curves and rose-gold flesh.


It was her derrière that first caught my eye. Specifically, it was the way the camera captured the pretty teenager’s rear end in “Blue Is the Warmest Color” so that it was centered and foregrounded in the frame. It is a lovely derrière, no question, round, compact and firm, and I became well acquainted with how it looked whether tucked into snug jeans or perched prettily in the air when Adèle, who’s 15 when the movie opens, lies splayed sleeping face down in bed, as young children often do. The director, I realized fairly quickly, likes a tight end.

Immediately the director is positioned as voyeur; in Marivaux’s day and age, it was certainly easier to get away with tricking your audience into believing that the woman-speaking was not actually the male author-speaking. And this might be the reason Kechiche went looking there. Writing about La Vie de Marianne and other ‘feminocentric’ eighteenth-century novels, Nancy K. Miller concludes that these novels about women are not for women at all; rather, they are ‘self-congratulatory and self-addressed performances, masculine representations of female desire produced ultimately for an audience not of women reading, but of men.’ Cut to an image evoked and dreaded by Julie Manoh:

Parce que – excepté quelques passages – c’est ce que ça m’évoque: un étalage brutal et chirurgical, démonstratif et froid de sexe dit lesbien, qui tourne au porn, et qui m’a mise très mal à l’aise. Surtout quand, au milieu d’une salle de cinéma, tout le monde pouffe de rire. Les hérétonormé-e-s parce qu’ils/elles ne comprennent pas et trouvent la scène ridicule. Les homos et autres transidentités parce que ça n’est pas crédible et qu’ils/elles trouvent tout autant la scène ridicule.  Et parmi les seuls qu’on n’entend pas rire il y a les éventuels mecs qui sont trop occupés à se rincer l’œil devant l’incarnation de l’un de leurs fantasmes.

Or back to Amy Taubin : ‘[Kechiche] also said, with a similarly stunning lack of awareness, that the film is couched in Adèle’s subjectivity. Even Jean-Luc Godard, the most dedicated of ass men—“A woman is her ass,” he once remarked, although I doubt he’d venture as much today—did not confuse his POV with that of the women he captured with his lens.’

The contemplation of inner things

Manohla Dargis, in a much subtler piece than Taubin’s diatribe (you can find both here), broadens the question of point of view and points to a paradox that seems inherent to the filmmaker’s striking stylistic choice to present most of the movie in close-ups fastened primarily on Exarchopoulos (who’s virtually in every shot) :

By keeping so close to Adèle, [Kechiche] seemed to be trying to convey her subjective experience, specifically with the hovering camerawork and frequent close-ups of her face. Yet, early on, this sense of the character’s interiority dissolves when the camera roves over her body even while she is sleeping. Is Adèle, I had wondered then, dreaming of her own hot body?

In other words, how can a tight close-up, often dissolving the world at the edges, be expressive of point of view when it is not ‘sutured’ to an eyeline match? It’s interesting to note that Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne was turned into a three-hour French movie not so long ago: in 1997 king-of-improbable adaptations Benoît Jacquot (he also adapted Mishima, Bataille, Constant and Gide’s Les Faux Monayeurs) borrowed Virginie Ledoyen – another nymphet with ‘gravity-defying curves and rose-gold flesh’ – from Olivier Assayas for a loose adaptation, titled simply Marianne, that traded the customary trappings of the costume drama, the dresses and décor, for a resolute focus on internal drama. ‘It’s the faces that’s important,’ Jacquot noted at the occasion of the movie’s New York premiere. You can say the same thing about Adèle. But you can say the same thing about most of today’s commercial cinema that uses tight close-ups very heavily, having both embraced the truism that the face is a conduit to deeper interior life and accepted the fact that movies today are mostly screened on much smaller screen surfaces. So in which respect, other than in the lengthening the shot (by now a received tactic of art house cinema), is Adèle different from the current bombardment of closely framed single shots?

Suppose for a minute that Kechiche was misunderstood in his claim to have made the movie according to Adèle’s point of view and that what he really wished to achieve is to capture her inner life – ‘The Inner Life of Adèle,’ like, ‘The Inner Life of a Cell’ – the way the world is reflected, digested (this is a movie about eating after all – sweets, shoarma, spaghetti bolognaise and oysters, they all disappear into Adèle’s luscious mouth), life inside her? It wouldn’t matter so much then that the point of view is the director’s; his presence and the camera’s would then resemble how Hou Hsiao-hsien, a very different filmmaker for sure, describes his point of view in his masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai: ‘If you are present with [your characters], and yet are both quiet and cool yourself, and you like and even love your characters, then you can stand right next to them and observe them with both eyes.’ Then again, Kechiche is no Oriental, not quiet and cool; he doesn’t stand next to his characters, he wants to get inside Adèle. And that brings us right back to the riddles of the sphinx. There are a number of filmmakers Kechiche is clearly inspired by: there’s the new French realist tradition, of course, with Adèle’s epic running time evoking Desplechin, the  party scene set to Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers” echoing both Assayas and Claire Denis’ use of popular song, the love story finding common ground with Eric Zonca’s La Vie Rêvée des Anges and Mia Hansen-Love’s Un amour de jeunesse, the (overlong) lycée and école maternelle scenes pointing to both Entre Les Murs and Être et Avoir, and the Northern setting evoking Bruno Dumont. But most of all, La Vie d’Adèle seems to inscribe itself in the tradition of ‘aggressive integrity’ (David Thomson’s term) that links John Cassavetes and Maurice Pialat. What Kechiche certainly shares with Cassavetes is poor writing: like most of Cassavetes’ work, Adèle is about acting first, so it’s small wonder that Steven Spielberg and his jury decided to award the Palme collectively to the director and both lead actresses. No matter how good Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are in the movie’s best scene – the post-breakup meeting in a largely empty gay-friendly café, where Adèle ‘devours’ Emma with even more gusto than usual and Kechiche finally learns about the eloquence of the reverse shot (the scene plays like a surrealist version of the diner moment with Pacino and De Niro in Heat) – most of the time we’re not too far from David Thomson’s description of Cassavetes’ directing skills: comparing Cassavetes to John Sayles, with the latter coming out on top, Thomson concludes: ‘Sayles’ pictures benefit from material, ideas, and talk. They are constructed, and so Sayles gets better performances from actors than Cassavetes. He directs them; he knows what they should do. Cassavetes indulges them, he invites them in and waits to see what they will do. He treats them like adorable pets; and we sometimes feel as if they were his vacation snapshots.’ Cut to a shot of Adèle at the beach in Pas-de-Calais, floating on the sea. That Northern beach setting is straight out of Pialat (sometimes called the ‘French Cassavetes’), who was also an actor, but for all his brutishness, is more delicate, more compassionate than Cassavetes. He also knows about cinema, about cutting, framing and camera movement. The trick of naming his protagonist after the actress playing her Kechiche also takes from Pialat: in Passe ton bac d’abord…, a clear touchstone,most of the characters are named after the cast. In his astute appraisal of A Nos Amours (which you can find here), the Pialat movie that is closest to Adèle if only because of its focus on teenage love and rebellion, Nick Pinkerton describes a practice that seems a lot like Kechiche’s:

The priority, then, isn’t straight-ahead storytelling. More important is finding junctions in the flow of life when indistinct, fascinating somethings can come to the surface of his actors/characters; the distinction between the two is rarely more porous than in Pialat’s work (actress Sandrine Bonnaire in [DVD documentary] The Human Eyes: “The film was a shared experience… as if I’d unconsciously wanted someone to tell my own story”; actor Dominique Besnehard: “I think he drew on everything we felt outside of the film, in our own lives, and got us to bring it into the film”), and the ease with which this ambiguity is integrated into the movie as a whole shames a hundred superfluous flicks that step back to admire themselves whenever they “blur the boundary between fact and fiction.”

Compare Pinkerton’s description of then-16-year old Sandrine Bonnaire to the impact of Exarchopoulos in Adèle: ‘Bonnaire’s performance—that word seems wrong here—Bonnaire’s existence in the film is a marvelous tumult; her beauty is crude, as uncontemplated as anything in her life. Her forehead is savage, her hair a clumpy tangle, her evasive smiles and little shrugs unrehearsed.’

If I appear to contradict myself by seeming to praise the Pialat-like qualities of Kechiche’s film and at the same time dismissing it for, apparently, very similar Cassavetes-like traits of realist performance, then so does Thomson, who praises Pialat for orchestrating pieces of acting that ‘seem like direct being, scarcely mediated or trained. In working and being with actors, Pialat seems to discover what he feels about life.’ My point here is not to evaluate Kechiche’s auteur cinema in comparison to either Pialat or Cassavetes, or to weigh their respective merits. What interests me most about Adèle is the way the movie inscribes itself in a particular tradition of phenomenological realism that values ‘closeness’ (of both physical and emotional space) above all: think of the dorsal tracking shots in Béla Tarr and the Dardennes, of the way Bruno Dumont alternates widescreen landscapes with claustrophobically intimate close-ups. But of course the most immediate touchstones here are Bergman’s work from the Sixties and early Seventies, with its suffocating frontal close-ups evoking Dreyer’s Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and, especially, Cassavetes’ Faces, works that value performance above everything else. In Bergman and Cassavetes, as Ray Carney notes about the latter, viewers are not permitted ‘to stand above, beyond, or outside of the characters and experiences….they must be involved with them, be actively engaged.’ What these filmmakers are after is the ‘destabilization’ of the viewer’s external position, the position ‘from which authorative or moral judgments may be made.’ The problem is that Adèle’s variation on attached point of view is less about the viewer’s position than it is about the filmmaker’s ambition to gain access to what is happening inside his characters and performers, as if he has no privileged knowledge, a dissimulation orchestrated by letting scenes play out long after their – extremely simple – narrative point has been made. This inquiring, anti-sceptical approach again fits a tradition that Malcolm Turvey has dubbed ‘revelationism,’ the proposed ability of cinema to reveal features of reality invisible to human vision (Turvey lays out this tradition in his book Doubting Vision). Writers who have theorized this aspect of cinema include Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Dziga Vertov, Béla Balázs and Jean Epstein. Frequently comparing cinema to microscopes and telescopes, these writers, Epstein and Balázs especially, have highlighted the close-up as a privileged means of access to a hidden reality. In his Theory of Film, Balázs is quick to psychologize the naturalist metaphor at the heart of his revelationist discourse, privileging the ‘discovery of the human face’ over that of the ‘physiognomy of things,’ intimacy over scrutiny. Good  close-ups are lyrical, Balázs says, and such they are expressive of the poetic sensibility, the heart of the director. And then the revelationist clincher: ‘Close-ups are often dramatic revelations of what is really happening under the surface of appearances.’ In The World Viewed, philosopher Stanley Cavell has proposed a similar ontological understanding of the performer’s presence in film, noting that on film, characters have no existence apart from the particular human beings on screen, and no life apart from the particular performers who incarnate them. By naming his heroine after his lead actress, Kechiche has clearly embraced this principle, urging us, as the Cavellian scholar Andrew Klevan puts it, ‘to attend to a character’s physical and aural detail,’ reminding us, ‘because we are prone to forget in our literary moods, of their ontological particularity in the medium of film.’

But Cavell has also understood that revelation of character can only occur in a particular situation. In the silent films by Dreyer and Griffith that he praises, Balázs notes that the face is often isolated in space and time: ‘Even if we have just seen the owner of the face in a long shot, when we look into the eyes in a close-up, we no longer think of that wide space, because the expression and significance of the face has no relation to space and no connection to it.’ This is what accounts for when we say a ‘claustrophobic’ or a ‘suffocating’ close-up. There is no longer any world there outside the micro-physiognomy of the face. If in Cassavetes, as some critics have argued, close-ups and extreme close-ups signal proximity not only of the camera to the actors, but also the actors to each other, in the case of Adèle this means only Adèle and Emma, making the world small and solipsistic in a teen-sy way. If background is abstracted – and in Adèle ‘background’ means a succession of extremely clichéd secondary characters, from the respective parents to the bisexual art critic, the ‘older woman’, the gay best friend, the attractive colleague – getting entrance to what the main characters are actually feeling or experiencing becomes so much more difficult. Let us, therefore, not outright censor our ‘literary moods’ and go back to our comparison to Marivaux. Marivaux’s novels are closely tied to the rise of the sentimental and the psychological novel. He was a psychologist first, but one whose insights into character were always tied to their social sphere. His interior characterization sprang from and developed external action. Although his novels are, like Adèle, filled with unessential incidents, the inevitable result of their fragmented form, they share a strong narrative through line, often highlighting the act of storytelling itself. In Adèle there is very little storytelling: devoiding himself of simple things like story, dialogue, situation, to focus exclusively on the dramaturgy of the face, Kechiche has failed where Marivaux succeeded with only words: to communicate information about the emotions of his characters.